Tips for Taking the NCLEX and Passing

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April 3rd, 2012

By , BSN, RN

If graduating from nursing school is just around the corner that means the next hurdle you have to clear is passing your national licensing exam or NCLEX. Preparation to take the NCLEX began the day you started nursing school classes and everything you have learned along the way, in the classroom and in clinicals, will come into play when you sit down in front of the computer and the clock starts.

When you take the licensing exam is up to you and the rules of your state. Some states required a waiting period between graduation and testing, others, like Texas will let you take your NCLEX the day after graduation if you have all your paperwork in order. Once you receive your Authorization to Test (ATT) you can pick your date.

Lots of people want to know how far out they should start studying or taking practice tests for their licensure exam. I think a couple of weeks are plenty. First of all, you need to get school and finals out of the way. Second, don’t wait too long. You are still in school mode, test-taking mode—don’t let those skills slip away by waiting. The longer you procrastinate, the more you will have to refresh and it lowers your chance of passing the first time.

Should you study on your own or take an outside prep course? I think you are the best judge of what’s most effective for you. With that said, if your nursing school has been prepping you for the licensing exam since the day you started classes you should have a pretty good grasp of the material and at least have developed a few good study habits. With an investment in a couple of good study guides including practice questions and some time I think anyone can prepare enough to pass the test.

The Weeks Before the Test

So here are some other tips for the weeks leading up to taking your NCLEX:

  1. Have an appropriate study area. – You just finished school so you should have somewhere you have been studying. However, you may find it helpful to now set aside a place most like where you will be taking the test. An area of no distractions. Like at the testing center make it a quiet place (no television, no stereo), sit at a desk just you and your computer when you use the practice disks.
  2. Make a schedule. – Set aside a reasonable amount of time 4-5 days a week for test prep only. Break your studies into categories of nursing and stick to a single category a day. Don’t overwhelm or overload. Feeling guilty about not getting something done won’t help your general testing attitude.
  3. Focus. – Studying for extended periods of time with short, scheduled breaks will keep you focused and improve your ability to concentrate on test day. Plan for two hour periods with 15 minute breaks and you will recreate the testing conditions exactly.
  4. Read all the answers. – Whether you get the question wrong or right, reading the answers broadens your understanding of why the way you answered was correct or not. It is also a means of reinforcing the questions you get right.
  5. Know concepts. – The point of the NCLEX is applying nursing theories and judgment. You don’t need to memorize an endless string of diagnoses or medications but understand symptoms and drug classes and how to apply the knowledge to benefit the patient. The only facts I suggest you memorize completely are normal lab values. They have set highs and lows and can help you to determine disease process questions.

While taking and passing the licensing exam is the next major hurdle, relaxing and having a little fun is important too. You have finished nursing school, a major achievement. Take a little time to care for yourself. Having a positive attitude and a rested mind and body counts towards your success too.

The Day Before the Test

On the day before the exam try to take it easy. If you feel compelled to study do a short overall review or one practice test and call it a day. Watch what you eat, get a little exercise, hydrate, and try to get a full night’s sleep. Make sure you know how to get to the testing center; maybe even drive it once to be sure you know where it is. Plan what you will wear, make it comfortable and I recommend layers. You have no idea what the temperature will be in the testing center, best to be prepared. Make sure your alarm clock is set appropriately.

Test Day

It’s the day you’ve been preparing for since you decided you wanted to be a nurse. It’s a big deal but it’s manageable. Here are a few more tips.

  • Read. – I mean read everything. Read the intro. It will tell you how to turn the pages, where the notepad is, and calculator. Read each question all the way through. Pick out keywords (best, first, initial, never). Rephrase to yourself, what does the question ask? Read all the answers. Just read before you ever click an answer button.
  • Prioritize. – Remember all your concepts from above and pick carefully. Is the question about ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation) or Needs (remember Maslow – physiologic needs then safety, etc.), or Nursing Process (assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, evaluation)? Remember patient’s feelings are paramount.
  • Eliminate. – There is almost always a clearly wrong answer. Eliminate it from your thought process. Absolute answers (always, never) are often incorrect and check for answers that say the same thing as the question. Rephrasing is not an answer. The fewer you have to choose from the more likely you are to get it right.

Some other handy tips include don’t delegate any duties that are in the nursing process, this is a nursing test. If you flat out don’t know, eliminate what you can, pick an answer and move on. Don’t waste time on questions you can’t answer. The computer will compensate, ask you a slightly easier question in the same vein later, and get you back to where you need to be.

There is no doubt that the NCLEX is important. While we all want to pass it the first time and not think about it again, not passing isn’t the end of the world. In most cases you can take it again in 45 days and you usually have up to four years to pass it. Again, I think you should take it as soon as possible but if your life is in some kind of upheaval or transition maybe it will suit you better to wait until things settle down before jumping back into the fray. Trust your own self-judgment. It’s just a test. By the end of nursing school you’ve taken dozens and passed if you got this far. You will pass this one too.

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